The December 9 concert was one of the most highly anticipated of the season, given the guest soloist’s deep roots in the Triangle’s musical community. George Taylor, one of the great violists of our time, was a member of Duke University’s Ciompi Quartet in the years immediately following his Carnegie Recital Hall debut. While in North Carolina, beyond his extensive chamber music work, he led the first concerts of the group that was to become the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle and then, shortly thereafter, the first season of “open public rehearsals” of the ad hoc volunteer ensemble that was to become the Chapel Hill Philharmonia. His departure from our more temperate climes for Rochester’s bitter winters came as something of a shock in 1986, so integral had he become in the musical fabric of our lives; but the work he’s done at Eastman and beyond has been far ranging – and he’s continued to enrich our lives, locally, with occasional visits, musical and otherwise.

Then winter reared its snowy head in NC in early December, and that planned gig was scrubbed.

Scheduling is tough, particularly when two academic schedules must be juggled, but Taylor made it back to Chapel Hill on a brisk March Sunday afternoon for a program that included as its centerpiece the Viola Concerto by Bartók that had originally been scheduled for December. Its companion works were changed – Debussy and Tchaikovsky gave way to Emil von Rezincek’s Overture to Donna Diana [oder Stolz und Liebe], the composer’s best-known work (by miles and miles) and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. At first glance that might seem an incongruous mix; Mark Furth’s comprehensive program notes explained that the concerto and the symphony constitute final works – hence the concert’s title, Finale – Bartók’s having been left incomplete, Mozart’s being his last symphony.

This is a substantial orchestra with a string section that must be the envy of many smaller professional bands – with around 90 players, all told, Hill Hall‘s auditorium stage was packed like unto those small cans of little Mediterranean fish. The revamped hall sounds great now, even with large ensembles – its infamous boominess is basically gone, and even the loudest passages no longer cause discomfort, as they did before the place was rebuilt several years ago. (Opportunities for naming seats remain, with lots of carved-out slots for personalization remaining; click here for details.)

Longtime CHP music director Donald L. Oehler conducted, seated (he is recovering from some leg issues) but with every ounce of energy he has ever mustered. The orchestra sounded terrific in the overture, no longer the concert staple it once was – even seasoned concert-goers may not have been familiar with it, so here’s a link to a Beecham performance that casts virtually no shade on what we heard in Chapel Hill.

The Bartók is a rarity, too, although a purely coincidental quirk of scheduling resulted in several recent performances in our state, the others being in Greensboro, featuring Scott Rawls. (Someone who heard Rawls and Taylor found the former’s instrument richer and more sonorous but assessed the dazzling artistic and technical results as basically comparable.)

The score, left incomplete, was finished by Tibor Serly and extensively campaigned by its dedicatee, William Primrose*; the music is pure Bartók, with echoes of the Concerto for Orchestra, Bluebeard’s Castle, and other works of comparable merit. The composer cuts the players no slack, and members of the orchestra privately noted the challenges of the score, with its many changes in meter. The performance sounded completely polished, and Taylor was at ease throughout, mopping his brow only twice. The mood of the three-movement piece (played without pause) varies as wildly as the spirits of the Hungarian people; every nuance was splendidly revealed. We claim the composer, here in NC, as one of our own, since he spent some time toward the end of his life in Buncombe County – indeed, his last work for piano and orchestra is named “The Asheville Concerto” for its quotations of local bird calls. Thus the performance of the Viola Concerto by this orchestra and with this distinguished solo artist was significant, fulfilling at last the high anticipation its announcement generated last fall.

The grand finale – very grand, indeed – was the Symphony No. 41, in C, K.551, by Mozart. This was a big orchestra rendition of a work that is rarely given anymore by such large ensembles, so it was in some respects a throwback to pre-HIP (historically-informed performance) days. It worked well enough, absent a few instances of insecure ensemble and a patch or two of intonation and articulation problems in the upper strings. The reason it worked so well was at least two-fold: the players’ enthusiasm and commitment, and Oehler’s deft leadership. The tempos were a shade broader than we are used to now, but the performance – apparently absolutely complete – was, overall, revelatory. Bravo Mozart!

The CHP completes its season on May 5 with Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony and winners of the annual young artist competition. Click here for details and be there!

*There are many links to Primrose performances in YouTube.